Originally Posted By: Val
I'm going to posit that this is a more-often-than-not thing, and that it's a big problem. Historians synthesize data, draw conclusions, and write about it. In that sense, history is similar to an observational science. Obviously, there are differences, but in history, if you want to make a claim, you have to back it up with data.


I'm going to weigh in with my 35-year-old personal experience of APUSH, for what little it is worth. The teacher was dreadful, and we often had classes where we were told to read the textbook while he put his head down on the desk and took a nap. The weekly quizzes were completely focused on memorizing the textbook - I remember a question that was literally about what color shirt someone was wearing in one of the illustrations. Exams were also mostly multiple choice, and aimed at preparing to score well on the multiple-choice part of the exam by remembering a lot of facts and dates. The teacher told us outright that the essays were very difficult, and that it was unlikely that any of us could do well on them. For that alleged reason, he offered to retroactively change the grade of anyone who got a 5 on the test to an A in his class, if we hadn't earned one already.

During the multiple-choice exam, there were a bunch of questions that talked about "evidence" and "primary sources," two phrases that I was familiar with from my science classes but had never heard in history class. As I was taking the exam, I figured out that the test designers thought that these were important, and tailored my answers accordingly. When I got to the essays, there were again references to evidence, and they actually gave us a fictitious "primary source" to read and answer questions about. Having been primed by the multiple-choice part, I answered these questions more like they were science questions. I was fairly fluent in this way of thinking because my parents were both trained as scientists - my father has a PhD in chemical engineering (but with more of a straight-chemistry work background), and my mother has an MS in zoology.

I got my 5, and my B- in history was retroactively changed to an A. (And that's how I qualified as valedictorian - it was my only B in high school. I was one of nine valedictorians in my year, all of us with 4.0 GPAs.) I attended UC Berkeley for a year and then transferred to MIT; both institutions gave me credit for the exam.

I'm not sure exactly what this says about APUSH as it was 35 years ago, let alone what it is today. It is clear that they try to focus on evidence and on primary sources, but if someone can figure out those concepts and apply them well enough to get a 5 when exposed to them for the first time during the exam, they can't possibly be very deep. On the other hand, I am told that the requirements for coursework have gotten more stringent in the interim, and maybe the test has too.